If it is for anything, the Commonwealth must stand for press freedom. photo shows BJP supporters16 April, 2024: BJP supporters during an election campaign in Guwahati, Assam, part of a road show of Narendra Modi. [photo © David Talukdar/ZUMA Press Wire/ Alamy]

More people than ever before will vote this year – half of the world’s population in more than 80 countries. But free speech – the very lifeblood of democracies – is increasingly under threat as governments try to curb the flow of information, according to a survey published on 3 May, World Press Freedom Day, by the Paris-based rights organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which evaluates the global environment for journalism.

This year’s World Press Freedom Index paints a troubling picture across the Commonwealth, as governments harass and restrict journalists, shut down media outlets, spread disinformation and step up their control over social media and the internet. With the war in Gaza entering its eight month, it has rarely been so dangerous to report the news, with 99 reporters killed (up 44% on 2022 and the highest figure in nearly a decade), according to the separate US press-freedom campaign group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

In this year’s Freedom Index, the Commonwealth’s three most populous member states – India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which between them rule over more than 1.8 billion people – are the worst-ranking countries in the organisation. And not one country in the bloc is deemed to have a ‘good situation’ for freedom of the press.

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India, where nearly a billion people are voting this month, has been an increasingly hard place for journalists to work over the past decade as press freedom comes under pressure, and reporters and editors are trolled, harassed and arrested for doing their jobs. The country – ranked 159th globally this year out of 180 states – has plummeted from 80th place in the first RSF index in 2002. And it has slipped a further 19 places since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014 as his Bharatiya Janata Party government suppresses critics of its Hindu nationalist agenda. At least 29 journalists have been killed since Modi took power and nine are arbitrarily detained now.

One journalist, Siddique Kappan, was arrested under anti-terrorism laws and detained for more than two years without trial for reporting on a Dalit girl who was gang-raped and later died. After the supreme court upheld his ‘right to freedom of expression’ and granted him bail, he was then detained on different charges, all of which the CPJ called ‘bogus’. In 2021, as the government was rocked by huge protests by farmers against the government’s free-trade agricultural policies, several prominent journalists were charged with sedition for reporting on the demonstrations.

Shortly after Kappan was released last year, the BBC aired a sober and fastidiously researched documentary about Modi’s alleged responsibility for the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat when he was chief minister, when at least 1,000 Muslims died, countless women and girls were raped, and up to 200,000 people displaced after their homes were destroyed. The government’s response was to ban the film, detain BBC editors, raid offices and charge the film-makers with tax evasion; pro-Modi TV accused the British state broadcaster of being funded by China. The Editors Guild of India said it was part of ‘a trend of using government agencies to intimidate and harass press organisations that are critical of government policies’.

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India has also led the world in internet shutdowns to suppress dissent – 106 times in 2021. In doing so, Modi has flouted the Cyber Declaration he signed at the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), when he pledged to promote ‘the free flow of information’. Even allegations of Indian intelligence agencies sending hit squads abroad to assassinate Sikh separatists in Canada and the US, and Islamist militants in Pakistan have not been subject to the scrutiny one might expect of extrajudicial killings. On the contrary, the Washington Post said, as ‘Modi has cultivated the aura of a Hindu strongman … pro-Modi media outlets have burnished this bellicose image.’ RSF’s Célia Mercier said: ‘It is unacceptable that the country portrayed as the world’s biggest democracy now lacks so many of the safeguards needed to sustain a free and diverse press.’

In Pakistan, where free expression has usually been risky, RSF condemned ‘unacceptable constraints on press freedom’ ahead of elections in February. It said that amid the oppressive climate that had dominated campaigning, journalists had faced ‘unprecedented harassment for months’, with at least 10 reporters physically attacked, while many new laws threatened press freedom.

The country was placed 152nd this year. It was 20th from bottom in 2002 but spared the ignominy of being the worst-ranked Commonwealth state by Zimbabwe being four places lower. The African country is no longer a member of the organisation and so Bangladesh has claimed the Commonwealth’s wooden spoon for a third year in a row – 165th this year (and only one above Pakistan 22 years ago).

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At a meeting in Dhaka to mark World Press Freedom Day, journalists spoke of a ‘climate of fear stifling the media’. In the Digital Security Act, Bangladesh has one of the world’s most draconian media laws and a prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, apparently intolerant of even routine reporting. A report published in February by Freedom House, the Washington-based rights organisation, said journalists and media outlets faced ‘frequent lawsuits, harassment and deadly physical attacks’. It added: ‘A climate of impunity for attacks on media workers remains the norm, and there has been little progress made to ensure justice for a series of blogger murders since 2015. Dozens of bloggers remain in hiding or exile.’

Along with Sri Lanka, ranked 150th, the four south Asian member states are the only ones in the Commonwealth with the RSF’s lowest classification of ‘very serious’ infringements of press freedom.

‘Free media’

Some prominent Commonwealth member states have fared better: Nigeria is 112th this year, up from 123rd last year (though in 2002 it was in 50th place). This is despite 53 radio stations being suspended and threatened with closure, and at least 15 journalists arrested (and several attacked) in recent months. But another leading African country has slipped: South Africa was 26th in 2002 – only four places behind the UK – but is now 38th. Uganda, by contrast, has plummeted – from 52nd in the first index to 128th now.

How little genuine regard there is among some members for the ‘free flow of information’ and ‘free and responsible media’ – hallowed tenets of the Commonwealth Charter – can be seen among both newer Commonwealth members, such as Rwanda and Togo, and the more venerable, such as Singapore, a lowly 126th. Rwanda, in 144th place, is behind countries such as Libya and Kazakhstan, while Togo fares little better at 113th. Gabon, on the other hand, may be a rare case of a country that has actually been improved by a coup; from 94th place last year, and 105th in 2022, it has now climbed to 56th place.

At the other end of the table, Canada – ranked fifth in the first index – still leads the Commonwealth bloc, but now from 14th place. The UK has remained remarkably static over the decades – 22nd in 2002 and 23rd now. And both countries’ rankings are despite incidents where journalists at protests have been arrested – in the UK’s case, a move ordered by senior police officers.

In 2017, Daphne Caruana Galizia became a martyr for brave investigative journalism when she was assassinated. In a woeful sign of a country sliding in the wrong direction, Malta now languishes in 73rd place – from 47th when its now-famous reporter was blown up – and is the European Union’s second-lowest ranked country.

Samoa, which hosts the CHOGM in October, is in 22nd place in this year’s index – far higher than other Pacific states and one place higher than the UK. Announcing the CHOGM’s theme of resilience last September, the prime minister, Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa, pledged to strengthen ‘democratic institutions upholding human rights, democracy and the rule of law’. One hopes that press freedom can be added to that wishlist.

Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table editorial board.

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